A Different Type of Valuable, Religious Education

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Pictured: A Muslim woman admires an Orthodox Jewish woman's baby on a bus in Israel.
(Photo Source: StandWithUs, official Facebook page)

I attended religious schools growing up and was all registered for a Jewish university at the age of 18 when I suddenly felt anxious about my decision. I knew of certain girls who were headed there and I was filled with a general foreboding that it would be a continuation of a snooty high school I had never attended. Friends would later tell me I was entirely wrong about the all-female college and I would later meet warm women who had attended, but the decision felt absolutely right at that moment in 1993. I had to go with my gut. So, in the eleventh hour, I switched to Queens College because that was where my best friend was headed. I had never really been encouraged to apply to NYU, where my parents went, or even considered the Ivy Leagues because my math SAT score did not reflect my general high school average of 94. I was in that "Doesn't score well on standardized tests" category that becomes a mantra for students who don't meet certain benchmarks. I still remember all of the vocabulary, but my decent English score was not enough to compensate for the numbers portion. What I did not know was that switching to the CUNY - my first secular school at age 18 after spending a gap year at an ultra-religious seminary in Israel - would prove to be life changing or how it would impact me beyond college.

My best Jewish girl friend was Rena, a popular name among modern orthodox girls, but at Queens College, I met "Reena." Her full name was Reena Chopra. Born in the U.S., she came from a family of Pakistani Indians that practiced Islam. Pathetically, I will admit that my first reaction to being surrounded by non-Jews and outgoing, interesting people like Reena was a jumping for joy type of excitement. I had never gone to school with people of so many different races, religions and cultures. I asked Reena questions about her life, family and the rules that her parents imposed, rules that were oddly similar to those of my own parents. I was in awe of her prior public schooling. Specifically, I marveled at how she, a Muslim, knew and was friends with so many Jews. Also, the realization that my peers from yeshiva were so race-aware (This was not their faults at all, it just happens when you grow up with uniformity. In 6th grade, we had our first black Jewish girl join the classroom.) was embarrassing in retrospect. In stark contrast, I didn't feel like the "odd Jew out" as I began to make non-Jewish friends for the first time in my life. Sure it helped that there were many "members of the tribe" at Queens College overall, but most were part of other departments and not in that of my minor, English. In my particular classes, I was somewhat unique, but I did not stick out. I was accepted.

There were things that would remain strange to me though during those college years: Naively in 1993, I found it hard to believe that a Catholic friend was genuinely interested in hearing about Jewish practices. I was surprised to find out that yarmulke-wearing appeared to garner respect for religious garb, which contradicted what I often heard from male friends about their "Jewish headache" and feeling uncomfortable standing out. Remember, this was over 2 decades ago and it was my unique experience. I was young and somewhat sheltered. This was my first time in classes with peers who were not from Jewish homes.
I wanted to declare to some of my Jewish friends "You can be who you are among these people! They respect your beliefs!" AND "There are good Muslims, you know!!!!" I wanted to shout those things then and I finding myself sometimes feeling the need to do so now, 23 years later in this post-9/11 world.

You see, my kids are in public schools rather than Jewish Day Schools. This is not a decision we made lightly, but one that initially made sense because tuition is exorbitantly high. In other ways, such as certain educational offerings, the move to public school would prove to be the best decision for us. We still lose sleep about supplementing our kids' Jewish education sufficiently, but it pales in comparison to the sleep we once lost over tuition. In public schools, our kids are exposed to kids of all religions, races and backgrounds. They have friends who are black, white, Asian, Mexican, Hispanic and of mixed races. Some of their friends wear yarmulkes and others wear hijabs. These are kids who embrace my own and have attended my son's bar mitzvah. These are kids who regularly volunteer to help me hand out plates and napkins when I bring cupcakes into the classroom. These are kids who behave in an exemplary fashion when I chaperone trips. These are kids that sit down in their seats on long bus trips and are not seen standing up or behaving rambunctiously. So it feels like an earthquake has hit when I still get questions from people such as: "I see on Facebook that you are friends with Muslims, how does that work?!" And yes, that has really happened despite the fact that I live in a town where Muslims and Jews work together, where they are friends and sit side by side on our town council. There are still a small group of people that can't get their head around how we have all come together.

You might scoff at what you read above, but you have to understand that until you are in a multi-denominational environment, you do not necessarily understand inclusion. I no longer walk around with "excitement" over having "different" types of friends because I've truly come to appreciate that the only categories I see are people I can be friends/acquainted with, and those whose actions displease me who I avoid. Every single one of my friends is terrified of and condemns terrorism. My Muslim friends are horrified by the actions of violent radicals. We may not agree on all points about Israel and often we hear conflicting reports based on the sources of our respective news, but we agree on wanting peace. My Muslim friends have reiterated to me that we are all children of Abraham (or as they say "Ibrahim").

Only hearing about and seeing Muslims from afar as a child, I knew very little about how similar our cultures (Jewish and Muslim) actually are, how we have uncannily comparable cultural dating rituals and pressures, as well as religious practices and decisions (i.e. covering one's head). My friend Saleha Ahmed and I have joked that we are "sisters from different misters" because of the incredible number of interests we share as well as our similar humor and cynicism.

I'm glad that I took the road I was not expected to travel after high school. From a young age, I had resolved to get a religious education from grade school through college. And though it did not go the way I had initially planned, or fit conventionally with early social and family influences, I got a valuable education about how to be a Jew in this big, vast, varied world.